Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Cairn

Three strangers they were. Walking down the narrow road, eating the grass, and closing in behind them was a county sheriff patrol car. They came to be known as Nicodemus, Gandalf and Henney. We stopped the car in surprise; it isn’t every day the two mules and a donkey come strolling down the drive with a police escort. They were shaggy and rough, the poor condition of their hooves apparent even from a hundred yards away.

“These belong to you?” The sheriff asked. They didn’t of course. He looked a bit perplexed. It seems they had been wandering about, getting into yards and otherwise inconveniencing the locals for a day or so. I spoke with the officer and, after hearing the situation, offered to contain them in a makeshift corral until their origins and disposition could be determined. My wife would tell you that this was my first mistake. I may agree, but I am better for the choice. It was thus that I came to be the legal custodian of three rather unwanted chunks of livestock.
I took some long saplings that I had cut for other purposes and threw together a small corral, attached to the little shed built on the property. I had straw left over from the house still, stored a few miles away in my uncle’s barn, so I spread a thick layer of it on the floor of the shed and brought the mules over. The two big ones had to be herded in, the little gray donkey spent the whole time I was building the fence tagging along on my heels. Once, he tried to steal my hammer but dropped it as he turned to run. It was the beginning of a friendship. A manly kind of friendship that involved biting, kicking and a few smacks upside the head with a feed bucket. The corral complete I herded the beasts in and pondered the options. I knew they needed a vet to look them over but money wasn’t exactly flowing from my ears. They had serious hoof trouble. The two mules had obviously foundered, a serious condition that occurs when a equine animal is given a high carbohydrate diet over a period of time. Aside from liver damage, it screws up their ability to process proteins in the body. A horses hooves are almost all protein so this is one area that it manifests itself. The hoof changes shape and grows very fast as the body tries to rid itself of the excess protein synthesized by the body. This growth is not consistent across the hoof and it grows in a strange shape as well. The big jack mule’s hooves were cracked and misshapen but the little mule was really bad. Her front hooves were curled around
and looked like a funky upside down candy- cane on the end of each leg. The only one who looked fairly spunky was the little donkey who, aside from being incredibly fat, was the picture of ornery donkeyness.
I called a local Ferrier and he came out the next day. We had to give the little mule some kind of sedative and he went to work. Her back hooves were alright, just a little chipped. The front, on the other hand, were a lost cause. The adept gentleman had to trim them with a hacksaw and, though he did his best, he still got into the quick a bit and the mule shuddered with each stroke of the saw. The smell of the blood did little to calm the others. Her hooves never healed and split mercilessly.
I called the local branch of the Humane Society. They had a large animal farm nearby. I figured since I was being so kind as to keep the animals while local law enforcement sorted out their ownership, perhaps they could send out a vet to just look them over for me. Boy was I wrong. The conversation was somewhat enlightening. It seems they had a pretty good idea where the animals came from. There was a gentleman nearby who had been in legal trouble before for abusing livestock. He was under court order to no longer keep any large animals but had violated the order. Missouri law will only allow prosecution, however, if the animals are found to be neglected while in his pasture. The simple fix was, he opened the gate. Lovely.
At this point the conversation took a colder turn. I mentioned the desire to have a vet look at them and the funding issues involved. I was informed that, as they had been in my custody for more than three days I was now legally obligated to give them proper veterinary care. More lovely. In the end, I paid a local vet eighty bucks to come out and verify that they were indeed mules and a donkey. The sheriff’s department was pretty happy to have them out of their hair though, so they let it be.
Now let me tell you. There is no sound quite like that of the chorus of two mules and a donkey braying as you pull in the driveway… and when you walk by a window…and when you leave for work…and at 4:00am every morning. You could set your watch by it and I do not exaggerate. If you have not stood in close proximity to one of these animals vocalizing, it is something like a mix of a phlemy sneeze and a maraca at the volume of a freight train horn. It will change your perspective and scare the holy hell out of you if you aren’t expecting it!
Their coming brought sadness as well. I had two dogs. Kida, the old girl. She is an Akita/Sheppard mix and Roxy, an American Bulldog. Roxy was the sweetest, most gentle creature you have ever met. She had earlier that spring lost a litter of pups when she survived an attack by coyotes. When one of the cats had kittens and Kida killed one, Roxy, easily a hundred pounds of pure muscle, had gently picked the kittens up and carried them to a sheltered place and lay with them.
I had found a source to purchase some square bales of pretty good hay nearby so I had been running by every week or so to pick a few up until I could source some larger round bales. I left out that day with the two kids in the old Ford pickup, off to get a few more bales. Up the little double track to the road, I turned the big vehicle wide onto the gravel and took off. As I accelerated I was thinking on the week and the plans for the summer and such when I felt an impact. It was as if I hit a log or a large rock in the road. I hadn’t seen anything so, in a confused state, I slowed and looked in the mirror. There, slowly struggling off the road, blood already beginning to drip from her sagging and open jaw, was Roxy. I went numb. I pulled down the road a ways and called my wife on my cell. We agreed that I should continue on to town and she would come up and look after Roxy rather than have the children have to see her. We continued on, the children none the wiser, me trying to act normal and fight back tears.
When I got home, we sent the kids inside to play in their room. It seems the dog was nowhere to be found when Crystal when to look for her. After searching and trying to follow the blood trail she came back to the house, where she found her. Nestled in the straw inside the little converted barn, lay Roxy. Her breath was a raspy and whistled, like a bad pipe organ pumped too hard. Her ribs were obviously shattered and blood spilled out of her mouth with each ragged breath. There she lay and there stood Nicodemus, the jack mule. My wife told me he had stood by her, reaching his head down and nuzzling her, the whole time I had been gone. I told Crystal to gather the kids and take them on a drive, I didn’t want them to be there.
Many will look at me and find me barbaric. They will see my actions as horrid and uncivilized and perhaps they are right. I am not terribly impressed with our civilization on most days so I don’t mind. You see, I was raised with certain ideas about things and, though I sometimes don’t like it, they stuck. I believe that if I take on the responsibility for a domesticated animal I take on certain obligations as well. I am responsible for its condition in life and I will not buy in to the modern denial of the reality of life. I will not (and have never) take an animal to a vet to be whisked away in a sanitized container and disappear from my life. Death is a part of life and it is a sacred and profound duty to see the circle out. If you have to ask, you probably won’t understand.
After the kids and wife said their goodbyes, I went and got down the .22. When I got home, Roxy had tried to come to me, she walked over to the sidewalk and simply couldn’t go any further. She lay there, her feeble breaths bubbling up and foaming at the corners of her mouth. I knelt beside her, stroking her ears. Words are not needed, the feeling was enough. I said goodbye and tried to convey how sorry I was. With a squeeze of a finger, her pain ended.
On the hill opposite the house there is a ridge. It is a meandering place, a small path winds down the descent into a shallow valley that borders the land until it abruptly stops for no particular reason at all. Partway down the ridge, beneath a small stand of dogwood trees, I buried Roxy. The grave was shallow and, after placing her head on her paws and scooping a small hand full of sand and clay over her, I covered her and raised a rock mound over her repose. Finished and glistening sweat, I sat down on the earth and, on an overcast and lonely Missouri hill, I wept.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beginnings again.

Ambition is a funny thing. It is easy to have. Plans are made, schemes hatched and bulletproof notions inscribed on paper. They always sound so great. They have all the trappings of wild and inspiring success and on paper they speak to the very soul.
Then you wake up staring at a puddle of smelly, solidifying gastro-intestinal offal with your mouth tasting like an outhouse at a chili cookoff. It brings it all home man, it brings it all home. You see, the toughest part of climbing the mountain really isn’t psyching yourself up, it isn’t preparing your pack with the essentials, it isn’t the first step. The toughest part of climbing the mountain is climbing the damn mountain! You will read a dozen self help books that talk to you about the most important step being mentally preparing yourself and the essential nature of the proper life philosophy and five year plan. I can guarantee you that these folks have never sat in the woods and tried to get a fire going when the wind was whipping around and it rained last night. Mentality be damned, at that point, it getting a fire going that is the key! Now don’t get me wrong, one needs preparation and the right state of mind if one wishes to accomplish great things, but so often folks get bogged down in the silly details so they don’t have to go through the agony of actually doing anything. There comes a time when you just gots to get on with it and do something, even if it’s wrong. Misplaced action almost always trumps intellectual apathy. It was thus that I began to act again. I tried cleaning up the place a bit, I was effectively a bachelor and my definition of keeping a tidy house fell a bit short of my wife’s upon her return but such is the interactions of Mars and Venus.
I sweated stones into place for the walkway. The largest was about four feet square and eight inches thick. I about pulled a few things on that one. A week after my drunk wore off my wife called. It seemed that her cousin’s marriage was in the process of dissolving at warp speed and she had a week to get back to the cabin. I made a flying trip to Tulsa, delivering an old Toyota Camry we gave to the now quite destitute cousin and brought the family back to our humble home.
Life began to take on some degree of rhythm. It was a readjustment for the family, accustomed to such niceties as running water and long, hot showers and elbow room, but we made do. I had managed to get back on at GM (temporary though it proved…again) and at the very least the bills were being paid down and groceries were regularly on the table. This began a short period of relative calm. We were still hauling water but one begins to find that a lack of many of the major conveniences of this modern society isn’t really much of a lack at all. This was a time of lonely (in a good way) strolls up the dark drive, a billion stars peeping out overhead. Looking down the hill the light from inside the house spilled out of the windows and I could see my family inside, wood smoke gently drifting in the night breeze, illuminated by the moon into a low, silver gray cloud. How often I would stand, cigar in one hand, tumbler of something in the other, and marvel at how nice a picture it all made. In the summer, standing on the drive at dusk would would reward one with bats. They would rise from the tiny caves dotting the hills and fly up the gap in the trees made by the easement road. Standing as I would, still as I could stand, they would swoop around me, gunning for the skeeters and bugs that were prolific. Often one would fly so close you could hear the wind as it beat it’s wings past your ear. It was majical.
One fine Sunday morning, the family packed up in the car to go to town for some errand, I forget what it was now, particularly as we never made it to town. Backing out of the drive and onto the narrow double-track that led to the slightly wider county road, we were met by three new friends. Gandalf, Nicodemous and Henney were leisurely strolling down the drive, munching on the grasses as they came. Gandalf was a little, fat, gray donkey, Henney was just that, a henney (donkey horse mix that isn’t a mule, I forget the logistics), and Nicodemous was a fifteen hundred pound Jack mule, gentle and sweet as the day is long, unless you pissed him off, at which point he would kick a freight train into the next county! This was the beginning of a short, unexpected and somewhat tragic friendship and the mechanism for some of the most profound lessons I have ever learned about myself.


Spring continued and work on the place was very slowly getting on. We had a full septic system and the sinks had drains and such but there was no running supply side. Water was brought in in the back of my ’88 F250 in one 300 gallon tank and two 55 gallon barrels. I purchased a small pump that we would use to pump the water out of the tanks and into the smaller blue seven gallon containers to be used inside. These were the kind with a little plastic spigot on the bottom and we would set it on a little wooden footstool on the counter next to the sink.
I was working steady so we had been able to outfit the kitchen with a brand new electric range. It was a nice one and no longer were we relegated to heating water on a little plug in electric burner. Now we could use the stovetop and heat it in a fraction of the time (the wood stove would have just run us all out of there). Showers were a little better too. I picked up a camp solar shower. On the ceiling of the bathroom, I mounted a contraption that hinged down and would hold the water bag of the shower with a little spot to attach the spigot. You filled it with warm water, closed it up and had the immense luxury of a full three gallons to shower with. It was absolutely heavenly.

The other area of concern was the driveway. We had been solidly snowed in quite often because of the slope of it and it simply had to be built up. I borrowed my Dad’s skid-loader and made about a hundred trips up and down the hill to the creek bringing gravel up to fill in. I also carried about thirty boulders to border it. Many trips up the hill were made on the front two tires and pushing the bucket full of a massive chunk of rock. Along with the drive I brought up a bunch of large flat rocks to use as pavers on a sidewalk, a vast improvement over the wood chip mulch sidewalk we had been using.

All this was an improvement but it was still a tough way to go. One thing I discovered was that living in an unfinished and tiny little place without many of the comforts a woman is accustomed to has a way of short circuiting the nesting instinct. My wife was not very happy with the relatively impoverished surroundings.

Her cousin offered to let her come down to Tulsa for a while and learn the ropes as a recruiter for trucking companies. It seemed a pretty good idea and would clear the place out so I could do some of the messier and more kid unfriendly stuff so I encouraged her to go. Soon, she packed the kids away in her car, loaded the luggage and I kissed them all goodbye. It began one of the most incredibly lost couple months I can recall.

As I alluded to earlier, I had fought with depression throughout the entire process. Being laid off, homeless, cold, stinky, etc. all have a cumulative effect that is difficult to shake off. Though I hadn’t really realized it, my wife and two girls were pretty much the tether holding me to the ledge. When they left I began a slow motion free fall.
I still went to work every day, I still tried to get some work done on the place, though not all that much, it seems. Inside I was somehow unraveling. Like a sweater that is snagged on a tree branch while the wearer slowly trudges along unawares, I began to detach. I drank a lot. Not going to the bar and hotting and hollering drinking, it was sit in the cabin, look on the stuff I was working on and needed to work on and drink. Hard stuff. Whiskey, brandy, vodka.
I did manage to get most of the taping done in the lower level, though I ran out of paint and had a few spots left to frame out and finish. I was trying to figure out who kept reflecting on the bottom of the bottle but when I got close I just passed out and couldn’t remember. The bottom of the barrel came a few weeks before my family returned (though I did not know it at the time). I was drinking brandy. I don’t remember a lot but I know I was gone. I killed a full bottle of the stuff and was feeling absolutely no pain. A little queasy is all. I remember thinking that it probably wasn’t a good idea to go up the stairs in my condition so I should sleep downstairs. Then I lay my head over and vomited all over the living room rug and floor.

It was thus that I awakened the next morning. Lying on a cot in the middle of the living room, a pool of congealed puke surrounding me. In my strange and drunken logic the night before I had decided that climbing the stairs was too risky so (this still cracks me up today) apparently I avoided this danger by going upstairs and bringing a cot, two blankets and a pillow down the stairs to sleep on. Safety first.

Cleaning the mess up made me feel a mix of resolve and shame. I am glad my children were not there to see me thus. For anyone who ever tells you that digging out of a total financial meltdown without a government bailout is just a matter of gritting your teeth and charging on through, punch them for me. It is a grueling mind game. But it can be done (I would recommend not spending time blisteringly drunk. It really lessens productivity!).
This was the beginning of the true upswing for me. There were still trials ahead, but to look in the mirror and see that you are now at a place where you must choose to rise above it or wallow in it forces the hand. I decided I would have to get it together if I wanted to look my girls in the eye. I poured out the bottles on hand and didn’t touch them for a long while.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The winter fast upon us, I began the framing of the inside of the structure. It was a faster process than the others as I now had the septic system installed which meant the county approved the electric connection. With a compressor given to me and a borrowed Paslode framing nailer, I began framing the interior walls. It was a fairly simple layout. The upstairs had three tiny rooms, two sleeping rooms and a sort of antechamber at the top of the steep staircase. The main level was one big room with a wall separating the bathroom and a small utility space. I had all the framing done and the drywall hung (mostly) at the beginning of January when a rather interesting development came about. I was laid off of my construction job first off. No more income. Then we were told by the Apartment manager we were renting from that she had a tenant interested in the place and if we vacated before our lease was up she would refund the deposit no questions asked. We, being no fools, took her up on it. We stored the little bit of furniture that wouldn’t fit in the cabin at a relative’s basement and headed for the cabin.
At the time it had no running water, no stove, no toilet and the drywall was untaped and strawbale was not plastered on the inside. It was a hovel, to say the least. The only good thing was the little Jotul woodstove. On one January day I recall it being 12 degrees outside. I had a small thermometer on the inside of the cabin door and, when I entered the house after splitting wood for a few hours, the thermometer was reading 96 degrees. That little stove would run you right out of there!
Thus began an interesting time, to say the least. Most of the meals were cooked on the cooktop of the woodstove. We relieved ourselves in a sawdust composting toilet that I had to hand carry out when full, and we bathed in a large Rubbermaid tote with a pump up garden sprayer. I discovered it is indeed possible to get clean using one gallon of water. It doesn’t have the therapeutic value of a nice, hot, long shower, but you no longer smell like a camel, and that is good enough.
Our water was carried in two fifty-five gallon barrels with a spigot attached. We would carry a seven gallon jug out to it (I had to unload it from the back of the pickup onto a rack built of 4X4 posts for that purpose and there was no way to get it inside the house) and, after filling it up, brought it into the house to use for cooking, dishes, bathing, etc. I had three seven gallon containers and I would fill them every other day. This went on until it got too cold and the fifty five gallon barrels froze solid. Then I would carry the jugs to a neighbors or relatives house and fill them there. It was a tough way to go. At the time we did not have a four wheel drive vehicle and, after a particularly bad snow, were unable to get out of the driveway for three days. Water was pretty scarce by the end.
With work being slow to dead, we were quite the picture of abject poverty at this point. There were barely funds to so much as wiggle. Without the help of some dear family members, we would have gone quite hungry and I am forever grateful for their generosity. Interestingly, this was a time of poignant memory for me. I would often stay up long into the night keeping the fire stoked (the stove was great but it was really too small and would not maintain a fire for long enough to keep a bed of coals overnight). The stillness of the forest, the orange and yellow flicker of the fire in the little glass window in front of the stove, it painted a picture of a simpler time. A time I longed to at least touch, though I knew it was long gone. The simple satisfaction I would feel when, of a day, I would tramp around the woods gathering firewood and carrying it, often from the far side of the property, armload at a time, to stack it up against the coming cold days. I had many downed trees and, being relatively new to burning wood, did not always appreciate the value of firewood that had not sat out in the woods in the rain and snow. I did become quite adept at splitting it small though. The little woodstove couldn’t take much wood at a time and if one wanted a hot fire, it was important to split it into pretty small bits, no more than two inches in diameter. This made for a very labor intensive process and underscored the need for a bigger stove (which we never got!)
As spring came around and the weather began its blessed warming, I progressed on some of the taping and finish work. I finally installed the clawfoot tub, a marked improvement on the plastic tote, and built a small vanity out of scrap cedar I found. We were still without running water but life was a little better.

Next. My wife, my kids and my heart go to Tulsa and I spend a month blisteringly drunk.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


In early fall, I had a plastering party. The straw walls were stacked and pinned, the lathe around the windows stapled in and clay was in order.
When you build a straw-bale structure, the wall gains its strength from the combination of the straw and the plaster, creating a stressed skin panel that is incredibly fire resistant and well insulated. After the wall is stacked, metal lathe is stapled around the window frames (areas around windows and doors are the most likely to crack the plaster so you want to reinforce these areas). The plaster was a mix of masonry sand and red Missouri clay, dug up during the excavation of the septic system. We mixed it in a little pit made from four straw bales and a tarp. We would put water in the pit, throw in the sand and clay and, wearing wading boots, do the stompin’ boogie! After fifteen minutes or so of jigging on the plaster it was the right consistency and we carried it in buckets to the wall and hand applied it. If you have never worked with clay plaster I can tell you it is positively therapeutic. Aside from the few times when, in a fit of exuberance, I pressed a wet glob of plaster into the wall and impaled the end of my finger on the loose end of the wire lathe. That is one of those experiences that drills itself into ones memory. You are leaning into the plaster, enjoying the feel as it sensuously smooshes between the fingers and curls between the knuckles, moist and cool, and then BAM! A sliver of galvanized steel eases into the end of the finger. You feel the slight pressure as it curiously probes the skin, then the slight pop as it breaks through and explores places it has no business being, like a galvanized raping of the finger tip. Right about then the profanities begin to flow like a mighty river and one looks around to be sure the youngsters aren’t within earshot, though they invariably are.
We only got one wall plastered that day. It was a good job we did, and I am happy to say the plaster is holding up surprisingly well after four years, though the final lime coat never managed to get onto it.
The plumbing for the drain side was next on the agenda. I installed schedule 40 PVC throughout the house under the slab and roughed in a bathroom, a utility room with a washing machine hookup and a small kitchen drain. Once the pipe was in I began the process of bringing in the ½ minus gravel to bring the floor up to a level appropriate to pour the slab. I brought some in by Bobcat but most was brought in via wheelbarrow. I shoveled it in and wheeled it down to the cabin (the truck could only dump it some fifty feet from the building site) and, in eight inch lifts, brought it up to level. At each eight inches I tamped it by hand to eliminate settling. It took some two weeks of solid nights and weekends to get it ready to pour the slab. The home was built on a slope so the rear corner had to be brought up nearly four feet. After much sweat, blood and tedium, it was ready to pour.

We Pour The Slab

Let me preface this by saying that I fully understand that anyone with half a brain would have roughed in the plumbing first and poured the slab before anything else. I, it would seem, was working with 43.5% cranial activity and failed to do so. If bought sense is better than borrowed, I have a seriously large stock of high octane good advice, let me tell you. I calculated at 4 ½ yards of concrete for the small slab, a pretty accurate figure, if I say so myself. The truck arrived and my Dad and father-in-law were there to help. Pop-in-law brought along a four foot float (he can pull obscure tools from anywhere, it’s quite amazing), and my Dad, well, he had good intentions. We began the fun and, right off the bat, a wheelbarrow load of concrete bound for the back of the slab overturned. My Father-in-law, Bill, lost control of it. He is diabetic and had helped me more often than I care to remember and felt terrible about the incident. I rallied the troops and kept it moving, after all, we’d need concrete there eventually anyways. I had instructed the redi-mix company to include an additive to make it set up faster, a precaution against the cold temperatures. As it would happen, the temperatures were unseasonably warm that day and the concrete was taking the express train to Set-Ups-Ville. We got it all in there and I began trying to float it off. We got it pretty smooth in the back and I was working the float and trying to outrun the laws of physics and chemistry when I turned around and saw my Dad. He was standing there with a pool trowel, bent over and kinda pawing at the concrete with it, all the while screwing up everything he was doing with his boots as he stomped around. It looked like a muddy cow pasture in a monochromatic gray. At this point I shooed him out and went to work with a mag. The concrete was setting up like a cat at a mouse carnival and I now had to just get it as smooth as I could before it was a permanent lava field. Working on two foam pads, I crawled around and smoothed the slab as best I could. In the end, it looked alright, but a marble rolled across it would look like an Irishman on a bender. The day at an end, I toasted the progress, hoped to God it wasn’t as unlevel as I suspected (It was worse) and called it a success!

Next up, I frame up the innerds and we unexpectedly move in

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Straw and clay

An eighteen foot equipment trailer will hold 350 strawbales quite well, provided you drive carefully and stack them in a manner that is worthy of an engineering degree from MIT. I had neither degree nor inclination to calculate the proper stacking method, but driving slow enough to make the farm tractors flash their lights and wish their horns still worked sufficed to get the bales to the house.
The septic system, properly permitted for a three bedroom abode, had been installed and the drain system for the interior was all in place and covered in ½ minus (read-tiny slivers of gravel with lots of dust so it would compact to the consistency of ornery concrete). The septic install was my first experience with a mini excavator. A good time was had by all. These little buggers, for those unfamiliar with them, are an absolute blast to operate. The initial learning curve is steep, to say the least, however the sheer joy of manipulating the sticks and making this smooth running, diesel powered device dig these glorious holes was indescribable. The greatest part is that they are incredibly difficult to get stuck. I had the experience of operating a Cat 941 High-Lift (owned by a generous neighbor) to do some clearing and tree removal, and riding atop 20,000 lbs. of rumbling digging machine was a rush, no doubt, but that little Japanese excavator was an experience all its own. The only trouble was the foot throttle controls, which, being designed (apparently) for Asian fellows of a stature somewhat less than mine, were something like riding a child’s Big Wheel. This little rubber tracked monster walked all over everything I drove it towards and then some, often scaring the holy crap out of me, but never hesitating and always coming out on top. The first trench to be dug managed to bulls-eye a rock the size of a fully dressed 454 Chevy and the process of figuring out how damn big this stone actually was (only a small bit protruded above the surface, had I been the Titanic I would have…. well… done what the Titanic did.) discouraging to say the least. This proved to be the only large meteor in my path and the septic was in within a few long days and some diesel fuel. My Brother-in-law joined the fun and used the Bobcat to clear the path for me and even ventured onto the excavator on occasion. I being a man and understanding the primal need to utilize mechanized equipment to dig holes and move rocks and dirt and such, was quick to promote such activity. We must all strive to be well rounded, after all.
Thus we found ourselves dropping three hundred and fifty bales of straw at the job site. Three fifty was the number because I needed at least a hundred and fifty and, while ordinarily a fairly good hand with numbers, I seemed to have forgot to carry the one or something and purchased nearly twice the amount of strawbales I needed. I have yet to figure out how in the world I could have miscalculated the amount by so much. Fortunately, my folks needed to seed a yard at the same time and purchased the excess off of me.
Over the next weeks I was busy installing the straw walls and building and installing window bucks, chicken wire and various pins and bale staples devised on the fly to prepare the whole thing for the application of the clay plaster made from a mixture of masonry sand and red clay, dug from the back yard of the cabin itself.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trees and voices.

Late spring found the roof on and the dormer framed up. A dormer on a roof that has a sloping ridge is a really odd thing. Had I known that the slope of the ridge would screw with that many of the angles of the frame of the house I would have punched myself in the nose and told me to just make a normal roof. As is happens I did not punch myself in the nose and the roof came into being as it now sits. Adding to the mayhem was the constant use of salvage material. All told, the wooden components of the house are about 80% recycled/salvage or harvested off the land itself. Soon the gable ends were enclosed and the preparation for the construction of the strawbale walls on the main floor was well under way. The walls sit on a rubble trench foundation made of a combination of creek rock from the creek at the bottom of the hill and “urabanite” as it is called. Urbanite is a green builder terminology for broken up concrete slabs typically gleaned from construction sites. The base of the foundation was tamped road base with a drain formed by stacking the concrete chunks in a way as to leave a small tunnel at the base. The front and south foundation wall is made entirely of hand stacked concrete slab chunks. These were placed in a somewhat running bond and ready-mix concrete was used as a spacing mortar when needed as the slabs were no of uniform thickness. These two walls exhausted the supply of urbanite and, being resourceful and fairly broke, I went with the next best and available thing. Creek rock.
At the base of the hill my little cabin perches upon runs a small creek. It is dry much of the time but runs clear down to bedrock in places. Beautiful place. I began taking the pickup down the path to the creek and loading it with the biggest rocks I could lift. These would be carted back up the hill and I backed as close to the building as I could and unloaded them. These rocks became the west and north foundation wall.
I dry-stacked them, nearly four feet tall and about two and a half feet wide at one point on the downhill side. Little by little, day in and day out I built up the wall. Once it was to the full height I needed, I mixed about twenty bags of cement to a wet slurry and shoveled it onto the wall. It ran down into the crevasses and locked things into place. This was like putting together a large puzzle that has no picture to guide you. On numerous occasions, my judgment was flawed and, sometimes after hours of hauling and stacking rock, a section would destabilize and crash down.

I wish I could say I was a trooper and dutifully picked up the pieces and started anew, but there were times I would sit down after being pummeled by exhaustion and the laws of physics and feel a sense of complete hopelessness. Months had passed and I was still many long months further before it would be livable, meanwhile we were paying rent and using what little money there was for the essentials, leaving precious pennies to dedicate to this project. There still was no power at the site and I would work long into the nights using a single light from a small generator given to me by a friend. It’s get-up-and-go having long since got up and went , it could just manage to chug out enough power to keep a 350 watt halogen lit. I was working one evening by that halogen inside the gable ends. Hanging sideways and trying to operate the hammer with about three inches of swing while squeezing between the frame, I heard the strangest sound. It was as if someone put a large ball bearing in a steel drum and rolled it down the hill. I stopped and listened intently as it grew to a steady thwack-thwack-Thwack-THWack-THWACK-PUH-TANG. The space went dark. Do understand that when I say dark, I do not mean the “Wow, it’s so dark I can barely see in front of me”. No. It was a moonless night in the woods. I was under a roof and tucked into a gable with a void below me. It was black as pitch. Gollum can’t find Bilbo dark. I stumbled around by feel, somehow found the ladder and climbed down. I didn’t even try to find my tools, spread out from the evening’s work. I just walked to the truck, hopped in and drove the fifteen miles to town and the crappy little apartment. At that moment, I felt neither good nor bad. No depression, no euphoria. I felt utterly beaten and completely numb. The next day I found that it had literally thrown the rod out the side of the block.

I cut down a tree.
It is funny the things that hold in the memory, those seemingly insignificant moments that hide the catalysts of great epiphanies. I reached this point not long after when I cut down a tree.
I had continued to work on the place fitfully throughout the summer. The foundations were completed. Atop each one, in preparation for the walls, a sixteen inch wide, four inch thick reinforced bond beam was poured ( all told, I mixed over three hundred bags of cement by hand for this project. Later, I did the math and calculated that I would actually have saved much time and a little money by forming the whole thing up and pouring the dang bond beam from a truck. I can only hope it built character or something…) and the conventionally framed wall off the kitchen was in. This was all done at a very slow pace as I continually fought with a sense of complete demoralization. Looking back I can see so many opportunities to use the resources I had available and do better, but at the time I did not, hindsight being only available too late to be of any service. The project was floundering and I was having a very difficult time keeping on track. I found it difficult to remain focused and would often spend much time just standing and staring at it, trying to become motivated, trying to envision a plan. Seldom did I rise above the hazy fog that engulfed me. I would plod along, little dab here, little dab there, not really accomplishing anything but just floating in a dreamlike paralysis.
In retrospect, I think I was in a fully involved inferno of clinical depression. I had all the psychological signs; couldn’t sleep well, often daydreamed about apocalyptic escape scenarios, unable to focus, feelings of being trapped, of being useless, etc. I talked a good game to most but I was rotting away. Contributing to this was a complete lack of any support group. I had few friends and those had moved away or were busy in lives of their own. The feeling of isolation was debilitating. I withdrew into myself and yet did my best to hide the extent of it from even my wife. It was the beginning of a dark time.
The tree was a seed that planted itself and began the ascent from this. My wife had dropped me off at the cabin one fall afternoon. It was early fall but the temp was just chilly enough to make a t-shirt feel brisk. I was walking around with an ax, looking for a dogwood tree to cut a few chewsticks (old native thing, chew on a dogwood branch for a while and it splinters up into a nice toothbrush, the sap in it has mild antibacterial and cavity fighting attributes, as it turn out) and I was a long ways from the cabin and the chainsaw and such. There was a tree. It had a perfect trunk. This trunk was straight as an arrow for a good fifteen feet or so and I needed a good fifteen footer for a part of the project. I thought about getting the chainsaw but didn’t. I took that double bit ax and swung it. A second swing gave a satisfying thud and a large chuck flew from the tree. It was cathartic. I set my feet and began swinging. Soon, the T-shirt felt fine as sweat slowly beaded on my face, dripping onto my glasses. Again and again I swung, chips of white oak littering the ground, feeling the change in the shuddering handle as I moved from the soft sapwood in to the solidity of the heart. A stroke down. A stroke level. A chunk flew to the ground. A couple hundred swings later, the familiar crackle began. Like arthritic knees rising in the morning, the tree crackled like bacon and, slowly at first, bent it’s knee in obeisance to the man with the ax. A crash in the woods and it lay there.
This was not the first tree I’ve ever cut. I have felled many. Somehow though, this one was different. I had already built the basis of a home with trunks of trees. Here lay another. The realization that I had, without the input of any mechanized helpers, without the belching fumes of fossil fuels, without the trappings of our modern age, just generated from the resource at hand, the raw materials for a home struck me like a brick. At that moment I realized that, if I was equipped with nothing but an ax and my own two hands, my family could have a home. Oh it may not be the home that most aspire to, but I had the capacity to create a shelter that would keep them warm and dry. It was a bombshell. I suddenly felt a tiny bit of control over my world. For the first time, instead of the overwhelming situation sucking the life from me, it ignited. I felt the world pushing and a spark flashed in my soul. I felt that most empowering and motivating feeling a man can have. I got pissed off.
I had my own little demons running about inside, cutting wires and shorting things out and making sure I knew that this was hopeless and impossible. All of a sudden it wasn’t the situation, it wasn’t the world that I was angry with, it was those voices in my own head that gave in to the weight of discouragement. For the first time in a very long time, I rose above the fog. Clearly I could see the path I needed to follow. The next week or so was one of the more productive I have had.
Now anyone who has dealt with depression knows that it is not so lightly discarded. It was the beginning of the upswing to be sure, but in the woods still I was, as the good Jedi master would say. I still pushed against that flood of emotions, though it’s intensity decreased and I gained strength over it. To this day it lives in me, generating angst and poetry (writing is one of the most effective outlets for me. I can sooth my own soul by putting proverbial pen to paper) and sometimes, feelings of that same despair. Each time I see it though, I remember the tree, the stinging calluses on my hands, the feel of the cool air in my lungs and that fire sparks to life. Ghandi once said, “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” These words are true, even if they are spoken to yourself.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I learn to fly

Throughout the rest of the winter, work went extremely slow. I spent more time with my family being warm and stopped in every few days to look and plan and take care of the dogs. I built a large strawbale doghouse for them, a sort of tarped off igloo that kept them cozy and warm. I February, needing to get closer to the project, we rented a cheep apartment in the nearest town so I could see my wife and kids while I worked on the cabin.

As spring began to sprung, work commenced. I purposely built a pole structure because I wanted to get a roof on it as quickly as possible. The stem wall and bond beam that would support the perimeter wall was not in and, as it would be a non load-bearing plastered strawbale wall, it needed to be under roof before to keep moisture from getting in during construction (more on strawbale construction later). The sheeting of the roof went slowly, but without incident. Each 4X8 sheet had to have the ends cut to properly match on the odd sloping roof. I had the occasional use of a small Dewalt battery trim saw which would cut somewhere in the neighborhood of…. 1 sheet. After that it was back to hand sawing. Eventually I got out the chainsaw and had at them with that. It must have looked a little odd, but it was effective! The roof was soon sheeted and ready to weather in.

The roofing I chose is a product called Onduro. It is an asphalt impregnated fiberglass corrugated panel system. Each panel is about 4’ X 6’ and it is rated at 150 mph wind and has a 40 year warranty. A little tricky to work with at first, but it goes on fast once you get the hang of it. The front of the roof went well and soon I was moving on to the back.

The sloping ridge created a nice parabolic sort of shape to the roofline and made a varying pitch. On the short side it was about a 5/12. The tall side was somewhere in the 9/12 to 10/12 range. At the end off the roof it was somewhere in the neighborhood of eighteen to twenty feet off the ground. The edge of the eave was an eleven foot drop, information about to become very important. I stapled down 30# roofing felt first and laid the roofing over that. The front of the roof was done and looking great. Rolling the felt across the back and downhill side of the house, I had a little incident. I had rolled three rows felt up the roof and was rolling out the fourth. As I reached the end of the row and, as it happens, the steepest portion of the roof, the staples in the felt I was standing on tore out.

At the time I was holding a large slap stapler and a hammer and wearing a full set of carpenters tool pouches (the two bag variety) with about fifteen to twenty pounds of tools in them. When working alone one does not want to have to crawl down every time a tool is needed, easier to just bring ‘em with you. As I leaned down to slap the next staple in I heard the quiet and sickening sound of felt ripping. At the same time I felt my body start to move.

Life went quiet and the world switched to slow motion. Once before in my life I have experienced this. Then, I was hit by a speeding kiddy pool being towed by a fourwheeler and flew, end over end until I landed on top of my head. (but that’s another story altogether) It is as if the mind, wondrous machine that it is, recognizes that we have now reached a place in which prioritization of inputs will be of lethal importance. All the sights and sounds of the forest around me disappeared. I was alone, watching as I began an unwilling descent to an unknown end. I spun around and, somehow, maintained my balance enough to remain upright as I began the short surf down the slope of the roof. I don’t know if anyone waxed my tar paper surfboard but it was doing fine. Directly below me was an extension ladder leaning against the house. It occurred to me in the nanosecond approach that to be entangled in an extension ladder while falling off a roof was probably not a really healthy thing (as opposed to just falling off the roof…) so, accelerating faster now, I gave it a mighty shove as I crossed the edge, sending it clattering down beside me. I distinctly recall sailing through the air, watching the ground getting closer and closer, though it all happened in a blink. I hit in a pile of dirt and rubble and mud with all the grace and finesse that 250lbs and a pouch full of tools can muster, which isn’t much. I grew up jumping out of trees and across creeks and such so I knew how to land, knees bent, roll out of it, etc. and I came to rest sitting upright on a pile of rocky dirt, empty handed. My first thought was to start checking and wiggling stuff because I knew the chances of me doing that and not being broken were slim. To my growing relief and amazement, though things were smarting a bit and I could tell I would be feeling it for a few days to come, all the fingers and toes and legs and such were structurally sound. Shaken, I rose to my feet as my wife, who was there at the time with the kids and heard the din as me and all my stuff went sailing, came running down the hill to me. To this day I am amazed that I walked away. Looking down at my empty hands and tool pouches I realized that, though I have no memory of doing it, somewhere between the paper ripping and me hitting the ground I slammed the hammer back into the hammer loop on the back of my belt and put the stapler in the right tool pouch where it belonged.

To the right you see a shot I took standing in the place I landed.

I took a few moments to walk down the hill to a sacred place. It is nothing more than a bluff overlooking a ravine at the back of my property. The ground is rocky and steep and two trees, a white oak and a red oak have grown together, creating a tall, narrow arch. It is a place that feels serene and sacred to me. There, in the tradition of travelers the world over, I made a small pile of stones. Many native cultures did this as a small offering to the great spirit, the Mother goddess, or whatever was right to them. My tiny altar was to all of them and the spirit of the forest itself, which I feel so intimately when I am there. I took a moment to contemplate over a cigar, left most of it to burn away on the stones in tribute and, after walking back up the hill to my future home, climbed back on the roof and finished up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Journal entry, 11/14/2004
Two and a half months have passed since I left the manacles of the General Motors Corporation. I suppose it really wasn’t that bad, just really… robotic.
I am back at Parkway now and four day weeks are nice, but I hate the drive. I’ll live though.
The first week after we closed on the house was strange. The moon was full. By eleven o’clock or so each night the woods were lit up in a beautiful glow. I stayed in a tent and tried to work on cleaning up as much as I could. When we moved we ended up with a ton of odd and end junk left. In the hurry to get the trailer unloaded it was just thrown off and created a major trashpile. The path to the homesite looked like a junkyard. Now it’s a bit more manageable. Everything is under tarps. My plan is to get a small pole barn up with a lean-to off the back to store a lot of the junk in and possibly even live in. It’s been a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me. Our chronic lack of money has caused us to dip into credit. Granted, our lack of funds is greatly due to mismanagement, mostly on my part. This will be an exercise in imaginative building, that is for sure.

Journal entry, 11/29/2004
A Drawknife, when pulled through the rough, outer bark of a white oak, at first sounds like a wooden cup full of steel bb’s shaken gently. As you get down to the more solid inner bark though, and begin actually separating the tannin rich, porous skin from the solid sapwood it clings to, it shifts to a sound I can only describe as that of someone slurping soup from a spoon…watery soup. There is a stark beauty left in the tree with the bark removed. The white sapwood quite nearly sparkles and sings. After a few minutes of exposure to the air, the thin bits of inner bark left here and there begin to shift to a dull pink and eventually turn an orange-ish color, giving a soothing texture to the giant shaft of solid wood. Not all the posts are straight. Most have knots and imperfections, adding to their character. The south ridge support beam has a lot of that. Granted, that is my own fault…
You see, when you cut down a tree, you have to cut a notch on one side and a score on the other. One would, under ordinary conditions, put the notch on the side you wanted the tree to fall on. I, by some feat of cranial flatulence I seem to excel at, cut a notch on the wrong side. The result was a tree that wouldn’t fall. My only choice was to raise the Bobcat bucket up to full height and push the tree over. The tree, not caring for my methods, chose to split about fifteen feet of the trunk and remain dangling in midair. [added note, the tree was on a slope and was leaning such that it should fall downhill. With the notch screwed up, there was no way to approach the tree and push from down hill, enabling it to fall into the goofed up notch] This is an incredibly dangerous situation.
When a tree falls it changes its nature. What was a tree lands in a heap of tangled branches and dirt (or in this case, mud) and instantly becomes a huge, coiled and deadly spring. The energy pent up in a fallen tree is enough to easily snap an arm, leg or neck should the wrong cut be made and that force be released. Thanks to my poor felling, that spring was fifteen feet in the air. I did manage to get it down with the help of my dear friend, Bob the Cat though… and without any medical bills.

The nicest looking beam so far is the south west corner. It is straight and clean with no knots. After debarking it, I just looked at it for a few, sharing my admiration with the dogs (who were licking my hand) and a beer (who was filling my belly!)
This weekend I hope I am far enough along to have the ridge beam on.

The beginning of all things

This is the story of my fall, my rise and the lessons I learned and didn’t. I went from well paid to homeless, lived in a tent, ate beans and wild plants when I had to, and built a house in the woods with my two hands. I do not mean to judge those who do and mean no disrespect to anyone, but I am proud none the less to say that I never accepted food stamps, I did not go onto welfare or charity. In many ways I fell into fortunate circumstances, however I pulled myself through those circumstances in ways few men have the heart to do. This is my story.

I was a productive member of society then. Those days when I went each and every day to the line, clocked in and installed the taillights, the body panels, the hoods and doors. I was one of the best. I learned fast, I knew many jobs, I was the ideal employee.
They said we would be working a long, long time. They said we would be making the bucks. We'd be the stuff, man.

The euphoria was short lived, as it seems. The day came when they said it would end. It would be the end of September and we would clock out and go on to make our way in the world. The news was like a punch in the gut. Less than a year in the little house in town, two little girls and a wife to think about and the construction work I had done before was dead in the water.
We deliberated, the wife and I, and we decided to sell the house lest we lose it anyways. The sign in the yard was a daily reminder of our fortune. Early in September, we got a bite. A nice lady needed a home and ours seemed the one. We closed at the end of September and walked away from the Title company with a cashier’s check for $6.97. The truck was loaded to the gills as was the trailer and, like Jed Clampett, we drove off into our fortune.
Fortune, as it was, consisted of 6.27 acres of undeveloped woods we were fortunate enough to own, free and clear. With our belongings stacked on wooden pallets and bricks beneath the trees and our home a three man dome tent and a tarp strung between three trees, we moved onto the land. For three days we stayed in the tent, fighting to keep the kids under the blankets as the temperature dipped into the 20’s and 30’s at night, until my wife and the girls moved in with my family while I stayed on and began the long process of building a home. Her stay with my family lasted all of two or three weeks, at which point she abruptly moved in with her own family instead.
The cabin was to be 16 feet wide, twenty seven feet long and have a small sleeping loft. The piers supporting the posts as well as a shallow rubble trench foundation for the stem wall had to be dug. There was no money to buy both concrete and rent heavy equipment for digging so I dug in the ’79 Ford pickup bed and pulled out a pickaxe, a hoe and two shovels. Four feet deep by three feet circumference were the pits I dug in the Missouri clay to form up the piers. The rubble trench for the stem wall was about eighteen inches deep. I sweated in the cool days as I busted through the hard red earth. The nights were soon spent in the comfort of an old travel trailer a neighbor loaned me. After evicting the mice, burning the bedding and coating the entire inside of it with Kilz, it was a dry place at the least.
The piers were in by December, the result of more than a hundred bags of cement mixed by hand in a homemade mixing barrow. The posts were on order. By on order, I mean I was marching through the Missouri woods and picking them out. I cut them with a chainsaw, trimmed the excess branches and drug them back to the building site. I have an old drawknife. It used to be a file and some industrious fellow of ages gone by had the notion to change it. Thus I came upon it. With this drawknife I stripped the bark from the trees I had cut. A single strip at a time I loosed them from their skins. Seven posts, all about a foot in diameter, ranging from nine feet tall to eighteen feet I had hewn. With a hand auger I bored a single hole in the base of each to mate with the short section of threaded rod set in the top of each pier. I have the good fortune of having relations who owed a skidloader and this I used to raise the post to their place. Working alone, I lifted each log with the bucket and slid it up onto it. Using heavy ratchet straps and some fairly unsafe perches, I would strap each post to the bucket and then slowly maneuver it into place. Once set, I used old barn lumber (salvaged it from a pole-barn that had blown down in a storm) to brace each one in place. The final one was the high point of the ridge and, at eighteen feet tall, it tipped the bobcat on its nose. I dangled for a moment and then righted it and commenced the project. I had quite nearly soiled my drawers but I was alone and that post just would not set itself.
Soon the posts were set and, with the deeply appreciated help of my Father-in-law, the 2x12 joists for the small sleeping loft were set in place and the salvaged palletwood floor of the loft was nailed down.
By this time I was beginning to frame the roof and the night-time temperature was somewhere in the 10’s. I slept in a parka with every blanket I owned piled above and below me. I heated water for showers and the unheated water in a cup next to me would freeze before I finished bathing. I had landed a job working nights as a maintenance electrician and I would arrive at the little trailer in the woods at around 2:00 am, just in time to fire up the kerosene heater to knock the chill off enough to go to bed. I rose about 9:00 am each day and crackled my joints out to the house to work on the roof. A small camp stove on a propane bottle was my stove where I heated water for oatmeal and canned soup. As it happens Bud Light freezes at those temperatures. Miller Light does not. Words to live by.
The roof of the house has a slanted ridge, about 22 degrees. Framing the rafters was interesting. There was no power at the site so each pocket, each rafter, each mortise in the post frame was cut with a large Japanese pull saw and smoothed with a chisel and large wooden mallet, a hickory handled, maple head mallet handmade by a good friend of mine. The rafters were run on 24” centers and then, as plywood wouldn’t line up because of the slanted ridgeline, purlins were laid horizontally. Each end piece and the rippers at the top of the ridge were cut by hand. Work was slow in the winter. Days would pass where I would have a single board, a solitary sheet of plywood nailed down before I had to gingerly crawl down and go warm myself enough to get to work for the evening.
A stomach illness had been circulating around some of my friends and family. A debilitating sickness that left one hardly able to rise out of bed and vomiting nonstop for a day or so. I arrived at my chilly camper home around 1am that January night. It was eighteen degrees and dropping. I ate a small supper and lay down. The air was cold enough that the hair inside my nostrils was freezing solid with each inhalation. The cramps began slowly. My head felt a little swimmy and I recognized that strange, floating and detached sensation of sickness. If I stayed where I was, hidden far into the woods and out of sight and mind, and came down with that sickness, I would freeze. There was no phone service, no electricity and no one would be there to check on me. Fighting the dizziness and the urge to release a tumbling bowel, I made my way to the little Toyota Camry and fired it up. It was an hours drive, first on back country gravel, cross a low water bridge (I was hoping the water was low enough)and finally, along forty miles of deserted blacktop down the Missouri river bottom (to grandmothers house we go) to get to the house where my family slept fitfully. I drove like a madman, barreling through the frozen water of Lost Creek, down the crisp night back roads, hell bent. Halfway there I rolled the window partway down, letting the frigid air scorch my lungs as I gasped in and out to try and stave off the nausea threatening to rise. After a hellish drive more miserable and cold and awful that any I remember since, I pulled in the drive of her Grandmother’s house, killed the ignition, flung open the door and vomited in a flying spew of angry Campbell’s chunky, all over the drive. I stumbled to the door, knocked as hard as I could and, in a few minutes, someone opened it. I remember stepping in the door. Then I recall waking up twenty something hours later to stumble to the bathroom. I was not out of bed for about three days.